Now in its fabulous fives without having acted-out any terrible twos, the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra has just added another distinction to its remarkable formative years: a commission with its singular qualities in mind. Though local favorite composer Michael Gandolfi made some concessions to performances for other youth orchestra such as avoiding divisi strings and tops of fingerboards, based on what we heard Sunday at Sanders, he needn’t have made any compromise for these forces. His Ballet Ruse, a pun on the appellation of Diaghilev’s famous ensemble, loaded incident upon incident in its lively and rewarding 10 minutes. As a curtain raiser to a gala, it met its marks to perfection. While the allusions to Richard Strauss had been conceived to echo Till Eulenspiegel, the originally planned concluding work, the ruse of opening and closing with familiar evocations of Der Rosenkavalier proved welcome even absent programmatic context. Given the successful sectional turns for all, I would hazard a subtitle, “An Old Person’s Guide to a Young Orchestra.” Gandolfi’s intoxicating potpourri of themes, emotions, colors and effects inspired the players to strut along with a conductor in his second or third youth.
The bulk of the nearly three-hour concert was given over to the organization’s third biennial concerti movement awards. Of the BPYO’s 120 players, 35 auditioned, and 7 took honors. Pride of corps radiated palpably as each laureate bowed. But as the show unfolded, one got the impression hearing solo passages from the rest of the band, that many more individuals could have pleased the spotlight. [Short bios and photos of the seven are here.]
Lars-Erik Larsson’s Concertino for Trombone provided a splendid vehicle for the sonic ministrations of Matthew Ethier. Anytime a brass player begins with such a level of quiet, expectant intensity, one knows that sensitive artistry will ensue. In the second movement, Ehtier’s trombone vocalized as a soulful melodist across a wide range of pitch and dynamics. The orchestra supported the poignant longing. The third movement disclosed a lively burlesque of quickness and humor.
To the third movement of Walton’s Viola concerto soloist Celia Daggy brought outgoing and generous and manner. Her exemplary interactions with the orchestra showcased a surprising glitter for a violist. Walton’s writing gave perfect pride of place to the sometimes retiring instrument. Daggy’s winsome perorations projected almost startlingly in the house, and with Zander getting the swooping accents just right, the full orchestra swelled to a mighty tutti before yielding to veddy Britsh reassurances of repose.
In a black velvet jacket and open necked shirt, the very tall tubist Frank John commanded the stage for his traversal of Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto (movements 1 and 2). What, dare I say, lightness and playfulness did he coax from the sometime refractory brass beast! We witnessed an out of tuba experience of a bass Brunnhilde pitch-bending and gender-bending. With astonishingly long breath and lightness of being, he led a pastoral perambulations redolent of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings and Vaughan Williams’s own Serenade to Music. Thanks, Ben and Vaughan and Frank…we needed this.
The extended first movement of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 impressed this writer as the most complex, chewy and rewarding absolute music of the afternoon, and soloist Sophia Szokolay showed herself more than equal to its demands. Quietly erupting from Balkan prehistory, she shunned theatrical trappings, bringing convincing high seriousness that apotheosized the composer’s boiling region in a paean of refined acceptance. Always she found lyric elements in the most dramatic challenges; she evinced a serene composure that directed her astonishing chops to the most satisfying musical ends. Zander and the orchestra partnered as true collaborators.
From leaping double stops to daring arpeggios, Aihao Zheng proved a powerful interpreter of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra (mvmt 3). In absolute unity with his instrument, he dispatched the requisite virtuosic, spicattos, harmonics, arpeggios—the entire catalogue of such effects—with charming insouciance—all within the first minutes. As the movement developed, Zander conjured a galumphing waltz redolent of the composer’s Romeo and Juliet. For soloist and orchestra alike, a gold star performance of wit, force and polish.
Flutist Carlos Aguilar played to the crowd more than anyone else on stage. Striking poses in his tight suit with bare ankles evident, he also pulled delicious tones of taffy from his gleaming gold wand. The burnished sound poured forth in unbroken arcs of molten seduction. Any carping should be laid upon Saint-Saëns, who was a bit too fond of the tune of his Romance for Flute to take it beyond the saccharine.
Though longtime BSO music director Serge Kousevitsky began his musical life as a double-bassist, he never made a successful case for his concerto for that instrument. Soloist Kebra-Seyoun Charles, abetted hand in glove by Zander and the BPYO, may have reversed the curse. The first movement discloses a wintry world of sorrow refracted through a prism of patrician splendor. Consistently in tune in the challenging upper reaches of his instrument, Charles effaced the sense of stunt that others bring to solo moments in this tessitura. With a better instrument, one would expect that he could also fill the room with profundo torrents. We’ll stay tuned.
Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Weber, which was premiered in 1943 by the New York Philharmonic, originated in response to Léonide Massine’s suggestion for a ballet incorporating some Weber piano duets. Once quite popular, it even made the rounds for many years in a concert band version. BMInter Mark DeVoto explains that “No. 1 comes from the fourth of the 8 Pieces, op. 60; no. 4, of no. 7 from the same set; no. 3, of no. 2 of the 6 Pieces, op. 10a; and No. 2, of the Overture to Turandot, Prinzessin von China, op. 39, incidental music to Schiller’s play, after a tale by Carlo Gozzi. In Nos. 1, 3 and 4 Hindemith adds new harmony, countermelodies, and concertante inspirations of his own to the framework of Weber’s originals. No. 2, the “Turandot-Scherzo,” is all Hindemith, a brilliant ostinato fantasy, building to two impressive climaxes but also hanging everything on a tetrachord, F-D-C-A, that forms the first bar of Weber’s quasi-Chinese theme. The middle section, a fugato for brass, permutes the tetrachord to D-C-A-F. The original tetrachord is repeated over and over at the end, in a quiet percussion ensemble in multiple meters. Compared to the overall size of his prodigious output, Hindemith wrote relatively few pieces for orchestra alone; this Metamorphosis is one of his best.”
Neither the abstract and academic Hindemith of Ludus Tonalis nor the grotesque metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s story, this Metamorphosis constituted a benign and theatrical transformation indeed of the unsuspecting Weber’s themes. What Hindemeith did with his sources raises the question of why he was banished from Germany as a socialist or degenerate. This Hindemith could have led either storm troopers or Hollywood pirates. What a fine, lusty conclusion.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.